INDIVIDUAL PRESIDENTS rise and fall with the whims of the electorate. But the office of the presidency remains a constant and crucial force in the smooth operation of the federal government. Even so, the Supreme Court has now ruled unanimously that the duties of that high office do not shield the officeholder from lawsuits having to do with his private, unofficial conduct.
Paula Jones, the woman who claims then Gov. Bill Clinton exposed himself and propositioned her in an Arkansas hotel room six years ago, has demanded her day in court to clear her reputation. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice John Paul Stevens found no support in history, in Supreme Court precedents or in the U.S. Constitution for delaying the case until President Clinton leaves office in 2001.
Justice Stevens also minimized the arguments of Mr. Clinton's lawyers that allowing this case to go forward could set a devastating precedent by opening future presidents to the possibility of frivolous lawsuits. He noted that only three presidents had faced civil suits; two of them were dismissed and one was settled out of court. But the political climate that faced those presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy -- would be almost unrecognizable today.
In a time when litigation, negative campaigning, partisan bickering and even character assassination are considered routine, it is no longer unthinkable that private citizens with a grudge, real or imagined, would file suit against a president they didn't like -- or that a president's enemies would encourage such actions. Truly frivolous cases should be weeded out by vigilant judges, but there is no guarantee.
This newspaper has argued that the harm done a plaintiff's case by postponing a trial until a president leaves office is a fair trade-off. It protects the interests of every U.S. citizen in the ability of the president to fulfill his duties while also preserving a plaintiff's right to justice, even if somewhat delayed. But now the Supreme Court has resoundingly ruled that swift justice takes precedence over rank.
That is bad news for Bill Clinton, but he has survived such crises before. The ruling may even spur a settlement that would satisfy both parties, while sparing the nation the distasteful spectacle of Ms. Jones' allegations being played out in court. Meanwhile, let us hope future presidents will be spared such dilemmas.
Pub Date: 5/28/97